Under the eyes of love

The Waves

There can be no doubt, I thought, pushing aside the newspaper, that our mean lives, unsightly as they are, put on splendour and have meaning only under the eyes of love.

— The Waves, Virginia Woolf

Happy 22nd birthday to my dear sister Kelsey, whom I wish I could be with today. Right now, in fact. Just a few more days! I love you and I am proud to call you my sister.

Today’s questions

Why is my hair less curly?

What is it about quiet novels about the interior lives of women that resonates so deeply with me? (See: Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, which I just started and I love. See also: All Works by Virginia Woolf.)

Is it possible to make quinoa taste like food?

What type of birds were flocked together in that tree, wailing and calling others to them? Were they starlings? I would prefer that they were starlings.

Why does Thanksgiving still feel so far away?

Where can I go where I can interact with more animals?

Are American politics becoming more and more dangerously polarized these days, or is it just me?

What do I have to do to make myself like yoga?

How do you know if it’s the Holy Spirit or your conscience or your latent desires?

When can I get a dog?

20 essential authors

A few weeks ago, when Windy and Mike were visiting, and Tracy was staying at our house, the women were lingering in our apartment, talking about books. Windy and Tracy asked me for my recommendations of the essential authors who need to be read in the Western canon. Quite a question. I didn’t have a good answer–I mumbled something about Joyce and Woolf and Shakespeare–but I’m going to try to prepare one now.

For Windy and Tracy:

My List of 20 Essential Authors in the Western Canon

20. Toni Morrison

Morrison’s novels have always completely enchanted me. I feel she is channeling something similar to Virginia Woolf, an intimation confirmed when I found out she wrote her master’s thesis on Woolf and Faulkner. Nothing escapes her notice. Her characters are raw. Her characters’ experiences are so far removed from my own, and yet Morrison’s undeniable talent lies in the fact that she makes all of her people extremely close. You care for them like family. My favorites: Beloved and Sula. To read: A Mercy, Tar Baby, The Bluest Eye.

19. Emily Brontë/Charlotte Brontë

Maybe it’s not fair to include both of them under one point, but they both wrote one important novel each, and they’re sisters, so, sorry, Ellis and Currer Bell. The Brontës are still so shocking to me. They prove the power of the imagination and the ascension of the artist’s soul above demeaning material and cultural circumstances. How did two sheltered women in the mid-19th century write such dark, powerful novels? Wuthering Heights is one of the most upsetting novels I’ve ever read and yet I cannot deny that it is a masterpiece. Jane Eyre is beautiful and moving. Both need to be read.

18. John Steinbeck

This man can write a NOVEL. If you’ve ever been through an American high school, I’m sure you know that by now. If you didn’t like Steinbeck when you were 15, try him again. He doesn’t write for children. My favorites: East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath.

17. Ernest Hemingway

I like to say that Hemingway is the only “macho” writer I’ve ever liked. He writes about drunken brawls, war, hunting, and bullfighting. His writing style is be the polar opposite of Virginia Woolf’s. And yet. I like him. I even love some of his novels. This is because Hemingway doesn’t succumb to the common path of many male writers strung up with their machismo. He doesn’t write women who are tired, sexy stereotypes and he lets his tough guys cry. Hemingway writes like a real man–not one who is trying to prove that he is. My favorites: A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, his short stories.

16. Eudora Welty

In basic description, she may be difficult to distinguish from Flannery O’Connor: Both native Southern women who wrote collections of compelling short stories. I was first introduced to Welty when I was quite young. Our family friend, Dave, who is a writer, gave me a collection of her complete short stories. I started reading them when I was about 12 or 13 and have been enchanted by her and her world ever since. Another writer I’ll always return to.

15. William Faulkner

By all accounts, I should be in love with William Faulkner. He’s a modernist and he’s Southern. I love both of those genres. But I confess that I’ve never loved one of his novels. This could be because I’ve only read two (The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!). But he’s consistently called one of the greatest writers ever to have lived (or THE greatest writer ever to have lived, if you’re this lit blog). This to say, I think Faulkner is important because everyone says he is important. Lame, I know. But I’m not giving up on him yet. Next up: Light in August, which should be arriving by post any day now.

14. Emily Dickinson

Who has ever written such short and such profoundly beautiful lines? No one can match Dickinson in this regard. One of my most prized books on my shelf is my giant anthology of her complete works. You can read just about any page and leave with your mind inspired and your heart illuminated.

13. Homer

Obligatory inclusion for the Father of Western Literature. Blah blah blah. I can never really make it through “The Odyssey,” but he has to be on this list somewhere.

12. Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard has a ravenously curious mind. I also think she’s read almost every book that was ever written. The amount of information that this woman KNOWS is simply astounding–and yet she writes with simple, direct humility. I have never read one of her novels, but her most famous books have made a sizable impression on my heart. One of the worthiest living American writers today. My favorites: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, For the Time Being. To read: Teaching a Stone to Talk, The Writing Life, her novels.

11. Jane Austen

I don’t tell people that I like Jane Austen now, because her reputation has been ruined by Hollywood. Thanks to silly films, most people write Austen off as a writer of fluffy, feel-good “chick lit.” Yes, there’s always a marriage at the end, but this is a classic trope of comedy she borrowed from Shakespeare; give the woman a break. She’s supremely intelligent, witty, and funny. Her characters evade stereotype. Her novels endure. I wish Austen could be seen for what she really was: A gifted artist who permanently affected the trajectory of the English novel–and got her reputation ruined by Hollywood. My favorites: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility.

10. George Eliot

I like to think of her as the female, British version of Tolstoy, if that makes any sense. Like Tolstoy, she created full-fledged universes in her novels and never wrote on a small scale. Virginia Woolf once said of Middlemarch, “It is one of the few novels written for grown-up people.” I think it is a wonderful description and one that fittingly applies. It’s still one of my all-time favorites.

9. T.S. Eliot

Clearly, I have a thing for the modernists. “The Waste Land” will probably have a similar effect as Ulysses; so dense it’s barely comprehensible without a guide. While that will stand as his great contribution, I think his truly wonderful work lies in The Four Quartets. And “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” will always have my heart.

8. James Joyce

I say that I read Ulysses last year, but I don’t know if I can say that. I looked at all of the words in Ulysses–and there are a LOT of them–but I’m not sure how much of it I really understood. I was using Allusions in Ulysses (UNC Press) as a guide the whole time, and that was a huge help, but it was still an arduous task. If you’re not a native Dubliner, Roman Catholic, and fluent in Latin and classic mythology–basically if you’re not Joyce–a lot of Ulysses will be incomprehensible without the help of a guide. Still. Most people say it’s the greatest novel ever written. It certainly changed the face of modern literature in a way that no other book did. My favorite: Dubliners (collection of short stories), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. To read: Ulysses, again.

7. Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy is probably the best at creating an entire world within the pages of his (usually long) books. He won’t let you escape the figurative boundaries he has created for you. But, as it is in my case, one is usually more than content to stay, to learn about these rich, realistic characters and their challenges. Essentially, he’s famous for a reason. He should be read. My favorites: Anna Karenina, Resurrection, and The Kreutzer Sonata. To read: His letters and essays.

6. Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor is second in my book for master of the short story form, close on the heels of Anton Chekhov. She writes with conviction and wry humor. She always tells it like she sees it. My favorites: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” stands out, as does her other most famous one, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” But all of them are good. To read: Brad Gooch’s recent biography of her, Flannery

5. Vladimir Nabokov

“Genius” is a word too liberally rendered to authors, but it has never been misapplied in Vladimir Nabokov’s case. He wrote one of (if not THE) greatest novels, Lolita–and he wrote it in English, his fourth language. His mind is enchanted by language. He makes up words. He creates characters so externally appalling and so internally sympathetic that one’s moral compass is thrown entirely off kilter. He’ll make your skin crawl, but you’ll keep returning to him. Because he’s the best. My favorites: Lolita and Pale Fire. To read: Most of his other novels; Speak, Memory, and Lectures on Russian Literature.

4. Anton Chekhov

I believe Chekhov is the greatest short story writer who ever lived, and I’d pick a fight with anyone who disagreed. Just read four or five of his stories and you’ll fall under his spell. His plays are equally incredible, and probably more famous. Chekhov was a noble-hearted country doctor who started writing later in his career. His glimpses into the souls of people are inspiring and chilling. My favorites: The Cherry Orchard (play), The Duel (novella), Grief (short story). To read: His memoir and his letters.

3. Marcel Proust

I’m currently reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, although his thesis is not something that I need to be convinced of; I already believe it’s true. For the past four summers now, I have read a volume of his epic novel, In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past). It’s an arduous task. I only read a volume a year, because I think it takes me a full year to recover from it. Nothing escapes Proust’s notice. The whole world is infinitely fascinating to him; all people worth describing; all memories worth mining. Proust captures the beauty and complexity of humanity in a dazzling, astonishing way. How can it be? He writes about rich people orbiting around each other at parties. And yet he writes about all of humankind. My favorite volumes, so far: Swann’s Way and Sodom and Gomorrah. To read: The final three volumes!

2. Virginia Woolf

It’s no secret that this woman is my hero. I spent a year and a half re-reading all of her novels and essays and then I wrote a sprawling, 130-page love letter to her, in the form of a mismanaged and somewhat poorly executed undergraduate thesis. I could talk about her all day long; consider that your warning. Woolf does something to me that no other writer does. I think all readers have a writer who affects them in this way. When I read her novels, I feel perfectly understood, completely reached–and yet constantly drawn in and mystified. She refashioned the novel in a way that no one else did or has done since. I will return to her for the rest of my life and I’d encourage all readers to do the same. My favorites: To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves, A Room of One’s Own. To read: Her extensive letters and the rest of her diaries.

1. William Shakespeare

The man invented most of our commonly used phrases and puns. That alone should get him some quality read-time. Aside from that, he just has to be read, thoroughly, for his influence on English literature extends beyond what anyone else accomplished. Yes, the language can be dense sometimes, but with a good annotated copy and a Shakespeare dictionary–and the willingness to read aloud to yourself–he’s a guaranteed great time. He’s merry and bawdy and the greatest wit you’ll ever meet. My favorites: King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Richard III. Still to be read: Julius Caesar and about five or six other plays.

Who would be on your list? Who do you think I’m missing?

My favorite morally bankrupt characters

I don’t like overly sunny novels. I can’t stand to read about ridiculously virtuous characters. As a child, I hated Nancy Drew (“Nancy tossed her blond hair over her shoulder and called, ‘Ned! Wait for me,’ as she jumped into his shiny red convertible…”) and flatly rejected those utterly dreadful books for Christian girls, like Elsie Dinsmore and The Basket of Flowers. Barf. Even when I was little, I formed the strong opinion that saints and angels make for really tedious and boring literature.

I like reading books with complex characters, with fictional people who have both virtue AND vice, people whose stories don’t always get that shiny, happy ending. I like to read about real life. This is why I shun most of Dickens, most of the Victorians, and most fantasy literature. I don’t think it’s wrong or terrible; it’s just not my thing.

That being said, I tend to enjoy a lot of books with unhappy endings and messy characters. Here are some of my favorite morally bankrupt characters.

SCARLETT O’HARA
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett is the pretty poster child for morally bankrupt characters. I had seen the movie many years before I got around to reading Mitchell’s novel, and when I did, the full force of Scarlett’s personality hit me even stronger than it did on film. Mitchell managed to make someone wicked and admirable at the same time. Scarlett is selfish, manipulative, and conniving — and yet we are pulling for her the whole time. Regardless of the unpleasant racial controversies of this book, I think it is hard to deny the genius of a writer who can create a character as complex and multifaceted as this one.

BAZAROV
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev

Bazarov is a snob. He’s like those kids who go off to grad school and become unbearably pretentious about… everything. Turgenev uses Bazarov as a standard for the young Nihilists of his Russia, the men of reason and science, rejecting all tradition and forms of authority. Bazarov fits his archetype neatly — he’s absurdly arrogant and vain — and yet, we feel for him. He gets his heart broken, even though he won’t admit it. He has a magnetic effect on people, even though no one wants to admit to actually liking him. Bazarov reminds me that people that I am quick to write off with a certain label are never that simple — and always deserving of more time and mercy.

PATTY BERGLUND
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

Patty Berglund isn’t exactly “morally bankrupt;” rather, she doesn’t seem to know where her morals stand exactly. This might be the hallmark of Franzen’s characters (from what I can glean from the cast of people in The Corrections and Freedom, both of which I unashamedly love). Patty represents, to me, the best of what Franzen can do. She is made so real in the pages of this novel that you finish it feeling that she is your best friend, that well-loved person  In my opinion, she makes the entire novel. She is downcast and confused, but she is painfully honest and reflective about her life and its variegated failures. If we could all be as truthful with ourselves as Patty Berglund, we could learn a tremendous amount about life.

MR. HENRY WILCOX
Howards End, E.M. Forster

Mr. Wilcox is a crueler version of Jack Donaghy: He’s rich, controlling silver fox who lives by conservative business morals and generally gets whatever he wants. Including the novel’s heroine, Margaret Schlegel. Margaret is not so easily bought, however, and her goodness eventually softens Mr. Wilcox — but not before he has been brutal, demanding, and insensitive toward practically every character. Still. You like him. He doesn’t back down. And even this crusty old miser has a soft spot.

RASKOLNIKOV
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

He murdered his old landlady with an axe for no good reason! Pinnacle of morally bankrupt. But the novel is about his SOUL. And it’s a great one. So, this book is always worth reading. (My father, by the way, still has not fulfilled his end of our challenge. He sent me a text that said: “I used to love naps. Now I hate them. Because I have to read Crime and Punishment.”)

MRS. RAMSAY
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

OK, so “morally bankrupt” is also far too strong a description for Mrs. Ramsay, but she’s no angel. The central character of my all-time favorite novel, Mrs. Ramsay is usually an overbearing, controlling matriarch. She sets up people who don’t necessarily want to be set up. She insists on domestic tranquility, even when emotions may need to be forcibly expressed. But I will always love Mrs. Ramsay, mainly because she is one of the deepest and most intricately drawn characters I have ever met. She chooses to live by the way of grace–and she lives well, in spite of herself.

How about you? Any quasi-villains or just ignoble characters you love reading about?

Why I’m looking forward to being 50

Woman Seated in a Garden, by Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec

As I have grown, I have become very interested in the renaissance of life that occurs for women when they hit 50.

I see it often happening in this way. A mother spends the bulk of her young life caring for her children. Even if she has a job, for the most part, she is more intimately concerned with raising children because of the joint demands of biology and cultural tradition. This is not true in all cases, but the majority of women have to make life sacrifices in parenthood that men are never asked to make. Although I have seen exceptions to this, it seems to me that men may keep their hobbies and be fathers; mothers are not so lucky. A mother’s entire life is wrapped up in her children and she does not have any time to think of herself.

This was certainly true for my mother. I realized she didn’t have any time for herself when I was about 9. That year I was charged with writing the family Christmas letter. I went around the house and polled everyone on their favorite hobbies so I could write about what they did for fun. Kelsey told me about gymnastics; Grace told me about fashion and painting; Sam babbled about basketball, football, soccer; Dad played tennis.

I asked Mom what her hobbies were. “Umm… well,” she said, thinking. “Raising you kids?” I frowned. “That’s not a hobby, Mommy.” She smiled. “Well, I don’t really have time for hobbies.” And she didn’t. She didn’t do anything that wasn’t directly related to raising us, homeschooling us, and running her retail business. I think I finally made something up and wrote in the letter that Mom’s hobby was making scrapbooks. I was sad about this, even at the age of 9.

Mom, age 52. Source: Grace Farson photography

This why I find so much joy in seeing women become empty nesters. After 20 to 30 years of child rearing, these women finally have some time to themselves. If anyone deserves a peaceful retirement, it’s mothers. I imagine that it could often be a frightening stage of life, though–to have poured your whole self into parenting and then, suddenly, you are left home alone and wondering what your life calling is now.

My mom still has Sam at home, but he’s the strong, silent boy, and so she’s eased herself into early mothering retirement. Today, she has a plethora of life-giving hobbies. She is a prodigious gardener and her plots are the envy of the neighborhood. She took a beekeeping class and is planning on acquiring her first hive soon. She is becoming an amateur birdwatcher. She goes to daily yoga classes with her new set of friends, a group of similarly emancipated mothers. And it makes me extremely happy to see her doing all of these things; no one deserves time to themselves as much as my mother does.

I also think of my friend Catherine’s mother, Janet. Janet is a wonderful example of this life-after-50 renaissance. Janet went to law school after all of her kids had left home. She wrote a book about the dire need for conservation of Falls Lake. She turned Catherine’s old bedroom into a Room of Her Own and put a sign on the door that reads, “The Falls Lake Center for Social Justice.” She is fun, sassy, beautiful, and opinionated — and it is delightful to see her enter into this new stage of living.

All of this to say, I am looking forward to being 50. Not that I want to skip over the whole process of being young and raising kids, but I am excited about the freedom that American women are allowed to experience once they are middle-aged. One day, it will be good to be old, to acknowledge that my life is half over and not to balk at it, but to be gracious, to take heart in it.

Monday Snax

This weekend has been a whirlwind, as we are house/dog-sitting for friends, and because we bought this:

Our new car

So. Yes. It is a lot of fun. Driving to work this morning was actually very exciting. Lots happening! Guion also got the part-time job he wanted at the Wine Guild, so we are thrilled about that. I’m still feeling a bit blurry and hazy from the weekend, so here are some Snax with a lot of caffeine:

A Night with Nettles. Grace took some photos of Nettles‘ recent concert at the Tea Bazaar. A very good show. (Grace’s other photos from the family trip to town can be seen here. For all the Baby Charlie fans out there, there are some amazing shots of him.) If you’re in town, come see Nettles on Friday night at JohnSarahJohn. They’ll be performing for an art opening by Matt Kleberg. (Como Say What?)

Yet More Charts That Should Go with Debt Discussions. Yes, the economy is tanking again, but we should cut down on the griping. See exhibit 1: Americans pay some of the lowest taxes of any developed country. (The Atlantic Monthly)

God’s Blog. God wrote a blog post and is subsequently subjected to all of the crazies on the Interwebs. Not even God can catch a break from those virulent commenters… (The New Yorker)

Wellness Wednesday: Yoga and Why It’s OK to Suck at It. Nina, who is so sweet, makes me feel better about being terrible at yoga. I should start practicing again. (Naturally Nina)

Mariachi Band Serenades a Beluga Whale. This is all over the Cool Lady blogosphere, but I will join them in adding my delight over this clip. It will make you happy. I promise. (Door Sixteen)

Felix’s Felicis. Natalie got a bunny, named him Felix, and broke my heart. I want a bunny! Not as much as I want a dog, but almost! I think Felix and Frances should meet and fall desperately in love. (Peregrinations of NJM)

The Last Thylacine. This is one of the strangest-looking animals I’ve ever seen. It’s a marsupial, but it looks so much like a proto-canid. Those stripes! Sad that it’s extinct. (How to Be a Retronaut)

How to Achieve Uncluttered Without Going Bare, Cold, or Minimal. Such clear and salient advice for people like me, who will be living in small spaces for a while longer. Highly recommended for renters like us who don’t want to live in a place that still looks like your college dorm. (The Small Notebook)

The Filming of Breathless. Guion is a huge Godard fan and this is one of the first of his films that I saw. It’s magnificent and these behind-the-scenes photos are really enchanting. (A Cup of Jo)

Document: Woolf’s Letter to a Young Poet. Virginia Woolf writes a brief review and encouragement to her nephew on his poetry. (The Paris Review)

In Which Vladimir Nabokov Navigates Hell for Lolita. Yes, the protagonist is very icky, but I think it’s one of the greatest novels of all time. Even Nabokov had a hard time convincing people of this, though, as you can see from his letters about the book, compiled here. (This Recording)

To Go-To Snacks of Literary Greats. A series of cute illustrations of what the big writers liked to eat while writing. I don’t think Michael Pollan can be called “a literary great,” but it is interesting that he likes to drink his tea in a glass. I remember seeing that on Food, Inc. and wondering about it. (Mod Cloth blog)

Good News for Wombs: U.S. Paves Way for Free Birth Control Everywhere. All I can say is: It’s about damn time. Look at you, America. Finally catching up with the rest of the developed world! (Good)

Things I know

Colorful hiragana practice. Source: Pinmarklet

This is a companion list to my recent post, Things I Should Know. These are the few things that I do know and could plausibly teach someone.

This list is simple proof that the bulk of my knowledge is almost entirely useless.

I could teach someone…

  • How to identify most AKC-recognized dog breeds.
  • Hiragana and katakana.
  • How to use apostrophes.
  • How to train a dog seven or eight basic commands.
  • Calligraphy.
  • How to fold a paper crane.
  • Why you should always spay or neuter your pets.
  • Fundamental Japanese verbs.
  • The names of most flowers and ordinary songbirds.
  • How to French braid.
  • Basic HTML and CSS.
  • About Virginia Woolf’s life and work.
  • Rapid alphabetization.
  • How to read and correctly interpret a dog’s body language.
  • The commandments of maintaining naturally curly hair.
  • How to incorporate lists into every part of your life.

As you proved with your earlier helpful and enlightening comments, you’re smart people. What basic things could you teach someone? Do share.

You write like a girl

I was flattered last week when my friend Natalie, editor of the Curator Magazine, expressed an interest in my post “Are women writers inferior to men?” With her advice and my faithful husband’s edits, I turned the post into a short essay for the Curator. So, if you’re interested in reading the same thing again, you can see “You Write Like a Girl” at the Curator today. (Also check out the holga photo essay and the article on Justin Bieber.)

In other news, I’m looking forward to a relaxing weekend at home. This is my weekend of volunteering at the SPCA, so I’ll tough it out with the lovable and exhausting homeless dogs, and we’ll then celebrate Guion’s 24th birthday a few days early by grabbing dinner at the much-lauded Peter Chang’s China Grill. And reading. I need to read some hefty books. Jennifer Egan and Wallace Stegner are waiting at the library for me, but Robert Wright and Muriel Spark are still on the nightstand. Time to get cracking.

Are women artists inferior to men artists?

Virginia Woolf Smiling? Surely not…
Woolf has a thing or two to say about this. Just look at that smirk.

Today I read a long and interesting piece by my favorite book critic, Francine Prose. The essay, entitled “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior?” was published in Harper’s back in June 1998. You’d think it was written today, because the problem Prose addresses–the lack of skilled women writers getting critical attention–is no better today than it was in 1998. (For purely graphical proof, take a look at the pie charts published by VIDA on the dispersion of male-to-female writers in top literary magazines.)

Of course, this topic interests me. Heck, I once wrote 120 pages about Woolf’s thoughts on women artists and the struggles they face. Francine Prose, in 1998, is merely writing shades of what Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929. Is there such a thing as writing “like a woman” or writing “like a man”? Why do people take men’s fiction more seriously than women’s fiction? Is it because women actually aren’t as skilled as men are?

As Prose points out, serious readers and serious consumers of art would never say that women artists are inferior to men artists. We should judge art by time-honored standards of value, skill, and beauty–not by the sex of its creator. But what if there is an unconscious and disguised sex bias against women artists? Prose gives plenty of examples of this (and some of them are not so unconscious and disguised. You’re appalling, Norman Mailer), but I’ll give some personal anecdotes to support this hypothesis.

Take, for example, my ex-boyfriend. He was a very serious reader and very intelligent; I respected his opinion on art. He was a classics and philosophy major; he read “real” books–and he did appreciate books by great female writers. (Flannery O’Connor, whom Prose uses as an example of stereotypically “masculine” prose in her essay, was one of his favorites.) But I noticed a distinct gender preference in his music taste. I realized early on that he didn’t listen to any female musicians. He never said anything against women musicians or bands fronted by women; he just stayed away from them entirely. This bothered me, but I never had any grounds to mention it to him. When I started hanging out with my husband, I was instantly interested by the fact that he talked about a lot of women musicians–Joanna Newsom, Bjork, Tori Amos, St. Vincent, Ani diFranco–and he didn’t just talk about them; he actually respected them as lyricists and musicians.

It’s not impossible for men to like women artists; many men do. But why does this bias persist? Prose quotes novelist Diane Johnson’s hypothesis on the issue:

Diane Johnson — herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy — observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.”

It’s an interesting suggestion–that men aren’t cultured to appreciate or decipher language that’s traditionally relegated to women. I feel like I can resonate with this depiction. I read your typical fare of princess books, Little House on the Prairie, and Nancy Drew, but I also read Johnny Tremain, The Bronze Bow, Encyclopedia Brown, and the Narnia books (interestingly, those first two “boy” books were written by women). It was somehow improper or undignified for a boy to read Little House on the Prairie or other “girls'” books. And yet girls were encouraged and even expected to read books across the gender categories.

This point was impressed upon me a few months ago. I served as a judge for a city-wide short story contest for middle-school girls. As I read through the dozens of submissions, I was surprised by how many girls wrote stories from the perspective of boys. Of the 70 submissions I read, there were at least 30 of them that were written from the vantage point of boys. I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find any middle school boys who were writing stories from a girl’s point of view of girls; the very idea seems ridiculous.

Why is this? This implicit understanding that boys should read boy books, but girls can read both? If anything, it’s far more of an injustice to boys. Because then they grow up to be men who blanch at the thought of reading anything that wasn’t written by Clive Cussler.

I don’t know any men who like Woolf, for example. (With the exception of my freshman-year English professor, Marc Cohen, who introduced me to the beauty and power of Woolf in the first place.) Woolf is intensely introspective, women-focused, and grounded primarily in the domestic realm. She writes about “feminine” things like wives, flowers, families, and mental illness. But does that mean she’s not as valuable a writer as Ernest Hemingway, who wrote about bulls and battlefields? Hardly. It’s worth noting that men write just as many superficial, cheap novels as women supposedly do. Let’s talk a little bit about Dashiell Hammett and his ilk, shall we?

And what should we say of Marcel Proust, who is just as intensely introspective, women-focused, and domestically centered as Woolf is? He seems to write “like a woman,” but no one dares question his merit or his additions to the Canon. People question Woolf’s contribution to literature all the time. That said, I am gratified by the rise of male artists writing about the mind and the domestic scene, like Jonathan Franzen, but maybe that’s still part of the problem. Franzen gets a lot more attention than his contemporary women writers who are doing the exact same thing. Prose is a huge fan of Deborah Eisenberg, one of Guion’s celebrated professors at UVA. Prose frequently references Eisenberg as an example of a woman writer who writes strong, “stereotypically ‘masculine'” stories and yet still fails to garner much critical attention.

So, what’s the deal? Prose ends her essay with the expected platitude that we cannot judge writers by their sexes; rather, there is good writing and there is bad writing. That is all. I felt a little disappointed. I wanted her to provide a solution to this appalling trajectory of the descent of critically acclaimed female novelists. But she was writing this in 1998. I can’t help but wonder if she feels dejected that, in 2011, we still seem to think that women artists aren’t as deserving of attention, merit, or praise as men artists. (Update: It seems that she is dejected, per her response to V.S. Naipaul’s statement that “no woman is my equal.”)

Clearly, an “affirmative action”-type program is not what we need. Women artists ought not to be unfairly elevated just because they are women. But how do we move ourselves beyond gender stereotypes in art? I guess that’s the unanswerable question. And so I am still frustrated. But at least I’m writing about it.

Week 8: Thank-you notes to teachers

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

This week’s challenge was inspired by blogger Erin Loechner, who challenged herself to write thank-you notes to 20 memorable and inspirational teachers. Teachers don’t get nearly enough credit in this country and it’s a perpetual mystery to me. Good teachers are responsible for most of the successes in our lives and yet we rarely remember to go back and thank them. In my own small way, that’s what I attempted to do this week.

Teacher 1. Mary Sellers

Mrs. Sellers taught my online AP English Composition class when I was a shy and yet pompous 9th-grader. When you’re homeschooled, you get to learn in a lot of non-traditional ways and online classes were one of those ways for me. In many ways, it was a strange dynamic, but Mrs. Sellers always managed to make our web classroom warm, friendly, and encouraging. She invested so much time in us as students and her hospitality was extraordinary. Mrs. Sellers stayed in touch with many of us even after we had finished her class and I was always impressed by her generosity, particularly as she was already busy with homeschooling her own children.

Teacher 2. Marc Cohen

Professor Cohen is important to me in many ways: He convinced me to be an English major and he introduced me to the great literary love of my life, Virginia Woolf. He taught my Intro to 18th-20th Century British Lit. class during my first semester as a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill. Unlike many professors these days, Marc Cohen actually cared about teaching–and he was very, very good at it. He was creative, encouraging, and enthusiastic and I’m so thankful I was able to have him as a teacher when I arrived at Carolina. I also really appreciated that his syllabus was uniquely focused on great British female authors; we only read women novelists for the novels in that class, which was practically unheard of, especially in the British Lit classes. I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time and I fell in love.

Teacher 3. Bill Cloud

Professor Cloud scared a lot of us in the Journalism School. He well over six feet tall and he spoke with a deep, intimidating voice and he liked to yell at you when you mixed up “illicit” and “elicit.” He once gave me a 50 on a paper because I spelled Brussels sprouts “Brussel sprouts.” I will never make that mistake again for as long as I live! But for all of his aggressive teaching methods, Professor Cloud is largely responsible for getting me a job. He prompted me to apply for the Dow Jones News Fund internship, which I never would have considered without his encouragement. Because of him, I spent an absolutely amazing summer working as a copy editor at the Denver Post. He’s served as my academic reference on numerous occasions and I can’t say enough how grateful I am for his influence. Professor Cloud has been an invaluable career resource for me and for many others, and that’s why I will always recommend him to other J-School students, even though he can make you cry in class.

Teacher 4. George Lensing

Gracious, eloquent, humble, and endlessly fascinating, Professor George Lensing taught the best class I ever took at Carolina, 20th-century poetry. I didn’t really get poetry until I heard Professor Lensing talk about it. We covered a few poems in each class, but we really covered them; we’d spend an hour talking about two lines of Robert Lowell. And then he’d start class with the story of having lunch with Elizabeth Bishop in the Brazilian jungle. Or when he had to squire Robert Frost around UNC’s campus for the day. No big deal. In my opinion, he’s the gem of the UNC English Department and it will be a sad day when he retires (which I heard rumored may be happening sooner than later). He also urged me to write an honors thesis, which was a tortured decision. But with Professor Lensing on my team, I felt like I could do anything.

Teacher 5. Erin Carlston

Professor Carlston was another very intimidating professor. She knew everything; she was fluent in most romance languages; she studied at Harvard and Yale; and she had read every important book–twice. She also didn’t let students get away with crappy writing. You had to labor to pass her class–but if and when you did, you felt like you’d reached the pinnacle of academic success. I took Introduction to Modernism with her and met many previously unread authors that came to be listed among my favorites. After that year ended, I decided to write my thesis on Virginia Woolf and timidly approached her to ask if she’d be my thesis adviser. She graciously replied that she would. Over the next year, Professor Carlston spent countless hours meeting with me, hashing out ideas, and reading and editing my often embarrassingly immature drafts. The slightest compliment from her–“This is a nice sentence.”–could make my entire week. You always knew that she meant exactly what she said and she would never give you false encouragement. She had a million things going on when she was helping me with my thesis–between finishing her own book, teaching a handful of classes, serving on numerous committees, and advising another undergrad thesis on Woolf–and yet when you met with her, you felt like your work was the most important thing on her agenda. Her advice and her edits undoubtedly made me a better writer and my gratitude to her is boundless.

Teacher 6. Mary-Lynn Whitman

I think we can all identify that one teacher who, early on, saw potential in you when no one else really did. Mrs. Whitman was that person for me. I was a shy, arrogant, and self-conscious little girl when I first met Mrs. Whitman in an art class that I took with her son, Patrick. She was bright, intellectual, and full of enthusiasm and knowledge. Even though she was already busy homeschooling her kid, she decided to take me under her wing. Her former life as a children’s book editor equipped her to teach me and critically evaluate my bombastic attempts at writing when I was in late elementary school and early middle school. I would come to her house with a few essays and she would spend hours with me talking about how I could improve and how I could become an even better writer. She saw promise in me, that there was hope that I could be a better writer and a better human, when most just saw a snotty and bossy kid. I am humbled by her attention, even now.

Teacher 7. Teresa Farson

How do you begin to thank the person who taught you everything? My mom gave up her whole life to teach the four of us. She wanted the best for us in every area of our lives and sacrificed constantly so that we could succeed. In our childhood, she endeavored to make learning fun, to spark our imaginations and innate curiosity, rather than make learning about conforming to a pre-defined mold and filling out blanks on worksheets. As a great advocate of “hands-on learning,” we figured out early on that there was no division between Life and School for us; the two were the same and every moment was an educational one. We studied botany on nature walks; animal biology when she took us to the race track; art through our monthly visits to the Mint Museum of Art. I didn’t understand why my neighborhood friends hated school so much. School was everywhere; it was our entire lives. Mom also instilled in us the principle that we were primarily responsible for our educations. If you were not educated, it was no one’s fault but your own. Many people ask me how it was possible that I could succeed at a university after being homeschooled for 12 years. Wasn’t I afraid? Wasn’t I unsure how to adapt to a classroom? Did I even know how to take tests? My transition to college was actually very smooth. Because I had been responsible for my education for years, the freshman concerns of self-control and time management were disciplines that I had already been practicing since I was young. I believe my mom is Superwoman and I don’t know, even now, how she did it all–and how she still does it (with one kid still at home). I know a thank-you note won’t cut it for all of the gratitude I owe her. But, Mom, for everything: THANKS.

Next week, I will be trying to study for the GRE every day! I’m not planning on taking it any time soon, but I go back and forth on the grad school conundrum almost daily and this is my haphazard attempt to add some discernment to my life. Until then!